Tragedy highlights danger of traffic stops

Curry County Sheriff’s Deputy Glenn Russ has purchased extra safety gear with his own money. (Staff photo: Sharna Johnson)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

An atmosphere of vigilance has settled over New Mexico law enforcement agencies since they lost one of their own in a routine traffic stop last week.

When he stopped the driver of a gold pickup truck, Deputy James McGrane Jr., 38, was shot in the head and died. For the Bernalillo County employee, the stop was part of regular duty. And so it is for others. Only now, the dangers inherent in the task are painfully clear.

“Levels of awareness (among officers) have been heightened in light of the situation with McGrane,” said Lt. Juan Martinez, public information officer for the state police.

“There is a danger that comes along with traffic stops, and it’s something we just have to deal with,” Martinez said.

In February, 13 deputies with the Curry County Sheriff’s Department issued 253 traffic citations in the city and county, according to Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher. The figures are typical for the department.
Hatcher said motorists are routinely pulled over for such offenses as running red lights, speeding and having open containers in their vehicles.

But the anxiety that comes along with making a traffic stop, no matter how many times an officer does so, never completely dissipates, officers said.

“With my first few encounters (with traffic stops) as a rookie, I was nervous,” said Curry County Undersheriff Doug Bowman. “You don’t know what will transpire. My senses were heightened, and it’s like that on very stop. It never goes away.”

With McGrane’s death, that anxiety has increased among some officers, along with employment of precautionary measures.

Hatcher said local residents may see officers ordering motorists out of their vehicles when they are pulled over. Hatcher said he is encouraging the extra precaution among his deputies, especially because the man suspected of shooting McGrane, Michael Paul Astorga, 29, is still on the loose.

Officers receive extensive training on how to conduct traffic stops, Hatcher said, the importance of which is brought to the forefront by tragic events such as Wednesday’s.

Among things officers are taught is to approach the vehicle’s driver on the right side, to use audible voice commands and to illuminate the roadway, as well as the interior of the vehicle, at night, officials said.

Certain actions by motorists can quickly put an officer on alert, such as sudden movements or hidden hands, Bowman said.

But keen observation and training can only do so much, officials said.

“There really is no such thing,” Bowman said, “as a routine traffic stop.”

“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred,” Hatcher added, “the individual we pull over has made a minor traffic violation, and they are more worried about the ticket they will get than anything else. But,” he said, “if the individual pulled over is a murder suspect, they are thinking outside that realm. … We never really know what the mental state of the individual is.”

For family members of officers, worry for their loved ones in uniform is almost constant, officials said.

“It is always toughest for the family. My wife is happy to see me come home at the end of every night,” Bowman said.

But the worries and fears that accompany the job, officials said, are outweighed by other aspects.

“For myself,” said Martinez, “it’s the motivation of making a difference — making this world a safer place for everyone in it.”